How Religion is Hampering Scientific Thinking in Africa


By Leo Igwe

Recently, there have been media reports of paranormal claims from different parts of Africa. These reports highlight cases in which witches supposedly crash-landed in the compound of a church or in a public square. There have been stories of people transforming into goats, cats or birds. Women have allegedly given birth to horses and frogs.

Popular and scientific literature have noted the pervasiveness of occult beliefs in Africa. Studies have suggested that magical beliefs are fundamental and foundational to social order and control norms, philosophy and stability in both ancient and modern Africa. Curiously, scholars have also observed the resilience of African magic, especially its unyielding nature in the face of ‘modernising forces,’ which, interestingly enough, include Christianity and Islam.
In this piece, I use media reports on “Robber Goat“, “Bird Woman” and “Cat Woman” to challenge this assumption. I show that religion, understood in this piece to mean Christianity and Islam, is anything but a ‘modernising, magic-and-superstition dispelling force’ in Africa. Instead the supernatural ideas of Christianity and Islam constitute reinforcing narratives that only hamper scientific thinking and critical inquiry in the region.
I argue that ‘religion’ obstructs the expression of knowledge that is based on observable evidence, reasoning and reproducibility. Religious faiths provide merely ‘causal’ links and narratives that serve as quasi-explanatory models, precedents and justifications for making paranormal sense of experiences.

The belief that human beings can turn into animals is very strong in Nigeria. This belief influences how people treat such animals or human beings, as the case may be.
In 2009, Nigerian newspaper Vanguard (January 23) featured on its front page the case of a goat that police detained over an alleged attempt to steal a car. Police told journalists that the goat was an armed robber who attempted to snatch a car but later turned into an animal as he was about to be apprehended by a local vigilante group.
Officers paraded the ‘goat suspect’ before journalists. Unfortunately, nothing was heard regarding the fate of the goat suspect to date. There had been no further information on investigation into the matter.
The police in Nigeria work with informal security outfits (vigilante groups) in the maintenance of law and order in the communities. Part of their security devices are anti-bullet charms and other amulets they believe can make them disappear. With these charms, these people claim they can also turn into animals, stones or insects whenever they are shot. In Ghana, a medicine man seriously injured himself while testing an anti-bullet charm.
The arrest of the goat suspect in this case was a security measure. The belief holds that people transformed into animals to evade a threat can turn back into human later, when the threat has gone. People believe witches use this technique in their operations. Witches disguise themselves to execute their occult schemes. Arresting the goat was thus a way of buying time and waiting for the goat to turn into a human being.
Again, it never happened.

In cases of witchcraft, people go to the extent of killing whatever they suspect to be the familiar: the animal or insect the alleged witch used for the operation. This measure is usually taken to eliminate the suspected witch and neutralise the assumed witchcraft.
There are cases, however, in which people believe reverse magic happens and animals turn into human beings.

This is the next case. In 2014, media outlets in Nigeria reported on the case of an old woman who allegedly turned into a bird. This woman reportedly confessed to being a witch. According to the story, the woman said she was on her way from a coven meeting at a neighboring city, Ibadan. She was flying alongside two other birds, probably fellow witches, but “missed her track”– her mystical powers failed and she turned back into a woman. A person who witnessed the incident said a bird landed on a bus and suddenly transformed into an old woman with bruises on the forehead. The police intervened and took custody of the woman.

In a related story, a local television has reported the case of a nude man who was found one morning in a church compound. The man confessed to being a witch on his way to a meeting, but the mystical powers failed while flying over the church premises. According to the story, the man attributed the incident to God and expressed his willingness to surrender his life to God.

In yet another case, local radio station FRESH FM reported on June 21, 2016 that a cat had suddenly turned into a woman in Ibadan, South West Nigeria. A correspondent from the radio station said that people had sighted a cat in a house and were about to kill it when it suddenly transformed into a woman.
One idea that underpins these stories is the notion that an incarnate being has the power to disincarnate and vice versa– that a human being can turn into a spirit and a spirit into a human being– or that an incarnate being can take on the form of other incarnate beings.
Another dubious claim that has been in the news is the supposed disappearance of private organs. On September 16, it was reported that a person’s ‘manhood’ disappeared shortly after he gave some money to a beggar at a bus top in Lagos, Nigeria. The report states that the said victim felt that his manhood had disappeared.
Again, as is often the case, the report has the photo of the assumed perpetrator of this harmful magic, not a photo showing that the victim’s manhood had actually disappeared. From my own experiences, those who claim that their private organs have disappeared are usually male. I have yet to come across a case in which a woman said to have felt her own private parts ‘disappear’.

Claims that the physical can disappear and the metaphysical can suddenly materialise are rooted in a cosmology that predates Christianity and Islam. These Abrahamic religions, however, are frustrating efforts to critique and scientifically examine these beliefs in Africa.
Christian and Islamic experts have been making similar claims drawing from the teachings of their faith and their own personal adaptations of the religious experience. They propound counter-intuitive notions and advance Christian and Islamic parallels that seem to validate these dubious beliefs, thereby weakening the scientific will to question, test and demand evidence.

One way that ‘religious experts’ are undermining a scientific outlook is by appropriating preexisting paranormal wares – by recycling and rebranding these mystical goods. Local medicine practitioners, called ‘sangoma‘ in South Africa, provide their clients with anti-bullet charms – magical portions and concoctions prepared using herb, animal and, sometimes, human body parts.
People believe these charms can neutralise gunshots. In the 1990s, the Kamajo militias used these magic charms while fighting rebels in Sierra Leone. In Muslim communities, however, religious experts, the marabouts, now market these charms in places in Africa, including Chad, Cameroon and northern Nigeria. They use verses of the Koran in preparing these charms. There have been reports that soldiers from these countries employ charms in their battle against Boko Haram.

Marketing these magical portions as Islamic medicine gives legitimacy to these paranormal wares. The Islamification of charms shields them from scientific examination because people are expected to exercise faith, not critical inquiry, in relating to these wares. People are reluctant to question or challenge the potency and efficacy of the marabout charms because such dispositions could easily be deemed blasphemous.

Christian pastors also peddle narratives that undermine scientific investigation of paranormal claims. The Bible contains a myriad of narratives in which God or other spiritual beings intervene in nature. We have the cases of the talking serpent in Genesis, demons that Jesus cast into pigs, Jesus walking on water, the conception, resurrection, and appearance of Jesus to his disciples, etc.
African priests, pastors and bishops have been ‘producing’ their own miracles now.
African pastor Bushiri himself claimed to have walked on air. In the video, this self-acclaimed prophet of God is seen coming down the staircase in his house and, upon reaching the end of the stairs, his legs can be seen dangling. Interestingly, the video does not show the rest of his body while he was supposedly walking on the air.
In an interview, Bushiri also claims to have performed other miracles including, as Jesus did, raising someone from the dead. In fact, he declares that walking on air was one of the easiest things he could have done!

As Bushiri notes, Christianity affirms the reality of the supernatural world and supernatural intervention in nature. Narratives of miracles that Jesus performed, or those that pastors in Africa peddle, are accepted as articles of faith that should not be questioned.
These include claims of witchcraft.
Demanding evidence for such claims or highlighting the gaps in reasoning is seen as either blasphemy, a demonstration of a lack of faith, or a form of spiritual sickness. Due to the fact that the Bible claims Jesus walked on water and raised Lazarus from the dead, many people are reluctant to question dubious claims of walking on air or resurrection. Actually, when one tries to question paranormal claims, Christianity and Islam are often invoked to shut down this process of inquiry.

These two religions do not, in any way, constitute ‘modernising forces’ in Africa. They render it increasing difficult to question and challenge supernatural and paranormal claims. Christianity and Islam only add to the existing superstitions, substituting or rebranding magical narratives that already apply in African societies. The skeptics’ movement should make it part of its program to subject Christian and Islamic faith claims to critical evaluation, even at the risk of being accused of racism or islamophobia.